The US Navy’s New 30-Year Plan Grows its Fleet Realistically, but Slowly

Reaching 355 ships is not projected until the 2050s, too slow for expected threats.

This week the U.S. Navy released its budget proposal for 2019 and a new 30-year shipbuilding plan . The shipbuilding plan is the Navy’s first concrete explanation of how it intends to build the substantially larger fleet it has said it needs for more than a year. The plan is realistic in that it does not expect to be able to build that fleet very fast, or even within its own three-decade horizon, and thereby does not meet the strategic requirements the Navy says it has. But the plan is also innovative by establishing a supplemental plan to accelerate the fleet’s growth if sufficient additional funding is allocated.

During his election campaign President Donald Trump vowed to build the U.S. Navy back up to 350 ships, a level it last saw in the mid-1990s, and up from about 280 today. The month after his election, the U.S. Navy released an updated Force Structure Assessment that articulated a need for 355 ships fleet to adequately meet all its mission requirements, a 15 percent increase over a 2014 assessment that called for 308 ships.

The new plan is far more detailed than previous ones, which have sometimes been criticized by lawmakers for being “fantasy” documents. The Navy’s 355-ship goal received mounting criticism for being unachievable and unaffordable in any realistic timeline, even as the Navy’s top officer espoused the need to build those greater capabilities in the next decade . At his own confirmation hearing, Trump’s Secretary of the Navy tacitly admitted the 350-ship fleet might never be reached.

The Navy’s plan is therefore notable for being realistic and achievable under expected future funding levels and shipyard capacity, and implicitly affirms many of the broad criticisms laid against earlier, more notional plans for reaching 355 ships. But is therefore also a disappointment to many advocates pushing for faster buildups.

The Navy’s baseline “Sustainable Growth” plan does not achieve a 355-ship fleet within its 30-year planning timeframe. The plan projects a fleet of 335-ships in 2048 by building about 10 to 12 ships most years, with a 355-ship fleet assessed as achievable sometime in the early 2050s. For the first time, the shipbuilding plan takes the health of the U.S. industrial base into detailed account, and designed the “Sustainable Growth” rate to be the minimum required to ensure those shipbuilders and supporting industries can be maintained into the future.

But several members of the House of Representatives’ seapower subcommittee are dissatisfied with the Navy’s plan and 2019 budget request and are calling for adding additional ships to its 2019 procurement, and accelerating its 30-year plan. However, it is unclear how likely it is that additional shipbuilding funds will added to a future budget deal, given that the U.S. Congress has yet to reach an agreement on the 2018 budget.

Nevertheless, while the “Sustainable Growth” plan appears to be the most likely and most achievable plan, a 355-ship fleet isn’t what the U.S. Navy anticipates it […]